musica Dei donum
Bach (JS): St Matthew Passion (BWV 244)
Christoph Prégardien, tenor (Evangelist); Max van Egmond, bass (Jesus); Christian Fliegner, Maximilian Kiener, soprano; René Jacobs, David Cordier, alto; Markus Schäfer, John Elwes, tenor; Klaus Mertens, Peter Lika, bass
Tölzer Knabenchor; Men's Choir of La Petite Bande; La Petite Bande (leader: Sigiswald Kuijken)
Dir: Gustav Leonhardt
rec: March 1-8, 1989, Haarlem, Doopsgezinde Kerk
deutsche harmonia mundi - RD 77848 (3 CDs; 74'40"/51'10"/46'32")
The St Matthew Passion is certainly one of the best known and most beloved works by
the great Johann Sebastian Bach. No wonder that there are many recordings, in all
sorts of performances. This is one of the few, in which all vocal parts are sung by
male voices. In fact, the cast brought together here probably comes closer to what
Bach intended than any other. This piece has been written for two choirs and two
instrumental ensembles. Since in Bach's time the solo parts were sung by members of
the choir, he certainly used different singers in both choirs. That practice is
followed here: where most recordings have six soloists (four for the arias, two in
the roles of Evangelist and Jesus), this one has no less than 10. Here the soprano
parts are sung by boys, as was common practice in Bach's days. The orchestra is
using period instruments.
The approach of Gustav Leonhardt is of a rather intimate and introverted character.
That doesn't mean that it lacks drama and passion. On the contrary, one of the
striking features is the strong emotional impact which Leonhardt creates by
stressing the importance of the text and putting it into the centre of attention.
This concept is almost perfectly realised by the cast. Christoph Prégardien and Max
van Egmond are ideally suited for the parts they have to sing. Of the other soloists,
only David Cordier and Peter Lika are slightly disappointing - Cordier is a little
too pale, Lika a little too 'operatic'. René Jacobs and Klaus Mertens are especially
impressive. Jacobs' interpretations of arias like "Buss und Reu" and "Erbarme dich"
are heartbreaking. The soprano parts are sung by two singers from the choir. The
soprano parts have a common character: they are all about love and dedication. That
character matches the boy's voice perfectly. Maximilian Kiener and in particular
Christian Fliegner sing those parts very well. They bring something like purity and
innocence into the performance no adult soprano can deliver. It makes the recitative
"Er hat uns allen wohlgetan" and the following aria "Aus Liebe" very touching.
The fact that the Tölzer Knabenchor is German helps in bringing across the choruses
and chorales. The pronunciation is faultless. The choir has also a very long
experience in singing German baroque music and has worked many times with Gustav
Leonhardt and Nikolaus Harnoncourt, in particular in the recording of Bach's
cantatas. It is able to execute Leonhardt's ideas about phrasing and articulation
perfectly. There are very few recordings in which it is so easy to understand the
text of the chorales. Every word is getting a different treatment, which gives them
a very strong emotional impact. The choruses are also done very well. Some of the
so-called 'turbae' are highly dramatic. The famous chorus "Sind Blitze, sind Donner"
starts in an almost subdued way, but gets more and more powerful, until it ends in a
In this recording we hear some of the best instrumental playing one can imagine,
from such highly skilled performers as Sigiswald, Barthold and Wieland Kuijken, Paul
Dombrecht and Marcel Ponseele. Choir and orchestra blend excellently and bring this
piece to and end with the moving closing chorus "Wir setzen uns in Tränen nieder".
In my view this recording is perhaps the best of its kind and a 'must have' for
anyone who loves the music of Bach in general and the sound and skills of boys'
voices in particular.
Johan van Veen (© 1999)